Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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On Embracing Aretha Whether or Not We Like Her Style

Aretha Franklin's great gift is her voice, but her genius is her bad taste. Admirers who try to ignore the way she affronts ordinary notions of vocal decorum prove only that love is deaf. Phyl Garland's encomiums about "dramatic instinct" and "fine sense of musicianship" tell us less about Aretha than the superlatives of the uncomprehending Rex Reed, who hates her: "Her delivery overpowers all meaning, all semblance of order and dignity. Her phrasing is sloppy. She is probably the worst ballad singer I've ever heard."

Two years ago, Aretha released a black-pop fusion album of rare promise, Young, Gifted and Black. Then she vanished. She canceled a tour; she threatened to leave Atlantic, the company that had made her career; and when her next album arrived, 16 months later, it was very nearly a disaster. Produced by jazz arranger Quincy Jones, Hey New Hey (The Other Side of the Sky) was a record of genius out of control. Aretha's tendency to soar, her chief asset, proved itself a liability as she drifted into the hey now hey, rudder trailing. The songs were long, and instead of ending they disappeared, just as Aretha had.

Last week, less than a year later, Aretha celebrated her new Atlantic album, produced like all of her best work by Jerry Wexler, Tom Dowd and Arif Mardin--and this time, Aretha herself--by playing the Apollo Theater. Her performance was confident, even triumphant. It also suggested that she had admired Bette at the Palace without getting the joke. Her way was prepared by six young black danseuses whose implausible costumes were matched only by their incredible interpretive gestures. Aretha herself entered in a spangled bikini-and-top-hat ensemble. Her slimmed-down midriff was covered with diaphanous gauze. I might have giggled if I hadn't been so busy gaping.

But her Apollo audience loved it. They loved her awkward bumps and grinds and outrageous costume changes, but they also loved the airborne grace of her hands and voice, and when she rocked out on "Dr. Feelgood" and "Spirit in the Dark," they rocked out with her. Apollo audiences aren't easily taken in; les danseuses elicited more than one howl of derisive glee. But this audience recognized that Aretha's silliest pretensions come from someplace strong and free. That's just the way she is.

Let Me in Your Life, Aretha's new album, sounds like one of her best, yet mixed in among its strengths are more dubious aesthetic decisions. She revives Leon Russell's "A Song for You" with a fresh electric piano part and a good helping of the indiscreet interpretation Rex Reed so deplores. But there is a moment when she sings "I was hiding" as "I was hi--" pausing before coming in with the "hiding" from some hidden cuteness chamber, that is mannered and godawful. On "The Masquerade Is Over" she sings a laugh after "laughed like Pagliacci" and gets in the way of the line. But the line is lousy anyway, and the laugh is liquid magic. At the end of "Oh Baby" she just wails, which at first sounds like yet another example of Aretha unmoored. Eventually, however, the middle-eastern intonations she comes up with add an almost otherworldly dimension of feeling to the song.

The temptation is to theorize that the literal otherworldliness of Aretha's childhood as a preacher's daughter is the source of her free-flying genius. But although soul music is often excessive, it is usually excessive within rigorous bounds of taste, and some of its most calculating stylists--Al Green, say, or Wilson Pickett--come from stricter homes than Aretha's. The closest parallels to Aretha are Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder, neither of whom grew up very sanctified, but both of whom are of course otherworldly in an even more literal way, because they are blind.

So say that for Aretha Franklin, the equivalent of blindness is a natural reticence closely linked to a lifetime of psychological hardship. Her sense of self is unsure, battered, but projected through that vocal equipment, it takes an overwhelming presence. Aretha isn't content to interpret a song. She has to possess it, swooping and dodging unpredictably around the melody, flattening or emphasizing an unlikely phrase. There is something desperate in her inspiration; she doesn't have time for niceties, she just has to get it out there.

Sometimes this approach falls flat, and sometimes it fails utterly, but even the worst cuts she's recorded for Atlantic--or rather, for Jerry Wexler and company--have a bottom that makes them listenable. That would be the rhythm track that Wexler and his crack musicians create for the song arrangement Aretha brings into the studio. Aretha obviously has a much more than adequate sense of rhythm, but you get the feeling that she forgets about it sometimes. If Quincy Jones is producing, that's when it disappears altogether; if Jerry Wexler produces, it doesn't.

To sum up, let's check back on that Rex Reed quote. What does it tell us? Overpowered meaning and sloppy phrasing turn out to be stamps of the singer's creation of personality. She doesn't so much sing ballads, a questionable endeavor anyway, as transform them into lyric fancies. Order is provided by Wexler's rhythm track. But how about that semblance of dignity? Well, hatred also is deaf. Aretha gathers dignity all the time, slipping into "With Pen in Hand" and "Eight Days on the Road," both conceived for independent (but loving) male personas, as easily as she slips into "I'm in Love" or "Oh Baby," asserting herself more often than she asks for favors.

Only occasionally--it happened on Spirit in the Dark--does Aretha create a wholly coherent and confident image of herself. More often there are signs of struggle, moments of gaucherie. But if we're smart, we'll embrace them as eagerly and spontaneously as she does, for as always, we can find some equivalent experience in ourselves.

N'day, Mar. 17, 1974